Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)
You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.
Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”
The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.
For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)
Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.
I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.
He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.
To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.
And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.
It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.
Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.
The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.
There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.
In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.
In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.
Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.
This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.
We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.
This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.
This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.
And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.
If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.
We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.
There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.
The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.